Read Time: 8 minutes
In this series, SEGD connects young designers with the design leaders they admire so they can ask their burning questions and find answers to help guide them on their career path. In this article, current University of Cincinnati DAAP student Mariel Lustig interviews Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram (New York).
Last November, Mariel Lustigwas one of ten students at the University of Cincinnati who received a free SEGD membership thanks to the generous donations of local members. When the call went out inviting young designers to conduct interviews with leaders in the design community whom they admired, she instantly knew she wanted to interview Pentagram Partner Michael Bierut—an alum of her school.
“I'm a student at the University of Cincinnati, working towards a bachelor’s degree in communication design,” Lustig writes. “I'm also participating in the Professional Practice Program, alternating semesters of study with work in the field of graphic design. Through my first co-op experience I have become passionate about experiential graphic design. I aspire to use visual communication to connect people to their environments and help brands tell their unique story.”
Michael Bierutis a well-known and accomplished leader of the graphic design world. He has won hundreds of awards for graphic design, served as National President of AIGA for four years, co-founded the popular Design Observer blog, received the AIGA Medal and was inducted into Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in addition to his work being displayed in museums around the world. He is also known as an educator, astute critic and author of three books on design.
Lustig described the interview as “the coolest thing I’ve ever done!!!!” We hope you enjoy it as well.
ML: When you were in school, what did you imagine life would be like as a designer?
MB: When I entered the University of Cincinnati DAA (they didn’t have the ‘planning’ part until after I graduated), it was really exciting to study and be surrounded by graphic design students and professors. But I was impatient to work, which is why the co-op program was so great: You get put in a workplace right away.
I had a couple of jobs that were not so great, and the experience made me even wonder if maybe what I was picturing [a career in design] wasn't to be, but then I got a job in Boston at the public television station there, WGBH. They had a fantastic design department that supported all of the educational programing that they did and all of the designers there were vivid, exciting characters. Many of them either came out of teaching, or went on to teaching careers, so they were almost perfectly suited to deal with a co-op student.
That experience gave me the courage to move to New York, which in the 70s was—if you were ambitious and willing to travel—one of the few places in the U.S. that seemed to have a real graphic design community.
It came out better than I could have expected; my dreams ended up coming true.
ML: What do you do when you need inspiration or find yourself stuck?
MB: The typical answers to this question are: ‘go to a museum,’ ‘listen to music’ or ‘take your mind off of it.’ All of those things sort of work. I usually find if I’m at a dead end, it’s because I’ve gotten too wrapped up in refining a graphic solution instead of working the problem itself. So, I stop trying to answer the question, and go back and try to think about the question in a new way.
ML: What designers inspire you and your everyday work?
MB: I'm inspired by lots and lots of different designers.
I've been really fortunate in the course of my career to work for some really talented people. I’ve taken important and inspirational lessons from designers I worked with as a student and early in my career—Chris Pullman, Dan Bittman and, of course, Massimo Vignelli. At Pentagram, there are 21 partners in our four offices around the world, all of whom are amazing designers, all of whom do work that I find really inspiring and interesting.
I really have been lucky to have worked over four decades or so in different contexts where I've gotten to see work done in a lot of ways. And that inspires me most of all.
ML: What was your first large scale environmental graphics project and what did you learn from it?
MB: I learned that the pace is worth the payoff.
When I started working for Vignelli, I thought EGD was boring because it seemed administration heavy and seemed to take forever compared to doing something simpler like a book cover or an illustration.
When I first started at Pentagram, I did a project for the Minnesota Children's Museum—it was a beautiful new building and the organization had a visionary director—and we came up with something really different. But because it was in St. Paul, I didn't get to see it going up day to day.
I still remember going out there late in the process, right after the install of a really large-scale graphic on one of the façades; I approached the building from the rear, turned the corner and for the first time saw something that, up until that moment, had only been a drawing, perhaps 24 inches wide.
And there it was. It seemed like it was two city blocks wide and three stories tall! I still remember screaming with joy.
ML: How do you continue to incorporate what you learned from Massimo Vignelli into your work today?
MB: The most inspiring thing about Massimo was that within the first year I was working there, he'd already had a nearly 30-year career, but he was still able to approach every job with real energy and enthusiasm—almost as if he had never done it before.
Preserving that sense of enthusiasm and curiosity and capacity to surprise yourself is a real gift. Massimo was optimistic and idealistic. He viewed things that others would view negatively as a challenge to do something really exciting, to surpass what the client’s vision of the project was. That is something I've really carried with me.
ML: What is your favorite part of a recent project?
MB: A few weeks ago, I was part of a presentation that we did to a new client for a new project.
On most projects, I’ll pick one of the designers on my team, depending on the situation, and make them be the lead designer for the project. This time, it was one of the newest designers on my team who is just a couple of years out of school and a former intern at Pentagram. It would be her first time leading on a project.
We took the brief for this project from the client, sat down and talked about it. She showed me some of her ideas for it and I had a couple of suggestions in response. After, she just went off and found her own voice; she came back with four complete directions she had worked out, all based on things we had discussed very loosely. It was just so exciting to see her come to that moment of ‘hey, I can do this.’ Then, the two of us worked on the presentation for the client, who loved it.
Now, this is something my designer will be able to follow through and see fully realized. It reminds me of the first time that happened to me 35 years ago, just about when I was a junior designer working for Vignelli. I was working on a project and had an idea for it, and he said, ‘okay, why don’t you just carry this out and we will see if it works.’
It’s a great experience to enable that moment for a young designer.
ML: How can a young designer stand out when looking for a job?
MB: The last time I looked for a job was in 1990. I remember it was exciting to get an interview someplace, or just drop off and pick up my portfolio and see what the reception area [of different firms] looked like. I saw it as a big and exciting adventure.
The first thing I recommend is: Be enthusiastic and open-minded to considering a lot of places. Look broadly into firms or companies whose work you think is exciting and inspiring—those will be the places that will help you grow the most.
Use every connection you can think of. When I got my job with Vignelli, it started with a guy I had worked with, who told me to look up his ex-classmate in New York who worked there. At that point, I wasn’t thinking, ‘if only I can talk to Massimo Vignelli, it will change my life.’ One connection will lead to the next and if you’re enthusiastic about making those connections, you’ll have lots of them.
Make sure that the work you show people is all stuff that you are really proud of, is your best work and somehow expresses the things that you’re interested in personally. That’s really what employers want to see. They want to get a sense of who they are hiring and how that person thinks and what they care about, not just if they have the skills that qualify them. Those things should come through in your portfolio as much as your ability to kern type or to resolve a layout or code a website.
Also, be really gracious and respect people's time. You getting a job is the most important thing for you, but them hiring you may not be their priority. Remember everyone is busy and everyone has their own lives. I think that this would apply no matter where you are you going.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.